The Kennedys were known for cool, also for passion and vigor. In late 1962, President John F. Kennedy discovered that President Theodore Roosevelt had written a letter declaring that a U.S. Marine should be able to hike 50 miles in a day. Kennedy decreed that modern-day Marine officers meet the same standard. At the same time, tongue firmly in cheek, the president asked for a fitness report from his own staff. JFK's brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, took the bait. Shod in a pair of dress shoes, RFK, along with several of his hardier aides, set off on a 50-mile hike in 20-degree weather along the icy C&O Canal towpath. Only RFK made it all the way, whispering to the last aide who fell by the wayside at the 35-mile mark, "You're lucky your brother isn't president of the United States." JFK himself handled the challenge in his own way: down in Palm Beach, Fla., he bet two of his socialite friends that they couldn't make the 50-mile march. Riding in a Cadillac convertible, he followed along for a mile or two waving a little American flag and sipping a daiquiri.
John F. Kennedy was the epitome of cool detachment, of effortless grace, of never seeming to try too hard while still accomplishing great things. He was elegant and eloquent, cerebral and witty, but a little distant. His brother Bobby was hot: fierce, scrappy, relentless, angry, soulful. The two brothers could not have been closer, or more different; JFK was, in Arthur Schlesinger's description, "a realist brilliantly disguised as a romantic," while RFK was "a romantic stubbornly disguised as a realist." Together, they inspired the myth of Camelot that the Democratic Party longs to reclaim.
Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would each like to call the Kennedy legacy his or her own. In his 1992 race for the nomination, Bill Clinton touted an iconic photograph: the teenage Bill at a Boys Nation Convention, shaking the hand of his hero, President Kennedy. Summering on Martha's Vineyard, the Clintons went yachting with the Kennedys. But then last week, Sen. Edward Kennedy, with Caroline Kennedy by his side (she also endorsed Obama), gave a heroic embrace to the Illinois senator. Hillary Clinton, who'd lobbied for Senator Kennedy's endorsement, still has a few Kennedys on her side: three of Bobby's children, including his eldest, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, former Maryland lieutenant governor and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate. But it would appear that the Kennedy torch has been formally passed to Obama. At a fund-raiser last summer, RFK's widow, Ethel, referred to Obama as "the next president of the United States."
Obama does have much in common with JFK. He is young and lean and handsome, and he can give a speech that makes audiences weep with longing and nostalgia. He is brainy and Harvardeducated and offers the dream of the American melting pot. In 1960, when Boston was still only a generation away from NO IRISH NEED APPLY signs in shop windows and anti-Roman Catholic prejudice was still strong in some parts of the country, JFK's ability to crash political barriers was nearly as remarkable as Obama's is today.
But JFK had something Obama sorely lacks: Bobby Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was able to float above the fray in part because he had RFK (or "Black Robert," as JFK jokingly called his moody little brother) behind the scenes, doing the grinding, sometimes distasteful dirty work of politics. All candidates have surrogates, but none has anyone so selfeffacing, so knowledgeable or so willing to do the nasty jobs as RFK was. While JFK was kept radiant and pure, Bobby was the grubby enforcer, the tough guy who cleared the hacks out of campaign headquarters and made sure the money was put in the right envelopes. John F. Kennedy had a powerful political machine, created by the family patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, expressly to elect one (or more) of his sons. It is not necessary to believe the stories about how old Joe was "mobbed up" to know that the Kennedy clan was willing to be expedient in an age when campaign finances were largely unregulated. Jack Kennedy once blithely told a Look magazine reporter that his father had to "buy" a Boston paper to secure a vital endorsement in the 1952 Massachusetts Senate campaign. (The paper was the now defunct Boston Post; Joe Kennedy "loaned" the owner several hundred thousand dollars.) Obama's campaign is reasonably well organized and quite well financed. But Obama does not seem like a do-what-it-takes infighter. Bobby Kennedy was always rueful about being called "ruthless," but he was and deserved to be. Obama has tried to hit back at the Clintons from time to time, but he doesn't seem to have much of a taste for the job. A favorite word of the Kennedys was "tough." Obama will have to be Kennedy tough to withstand the attacks that are sure to come his way.